Thoughts on: Defining Wine Expertise

Trying to learn the world of wine is a daunting task, as there’s not only thousands of years of history, production methods, tradition, legal and cultural factors to learn but like every modern industry it’s constantly changing and evolving. This has never been more true than today, when every year it appears that there are more regions being explored, more indigenous grapes being discovered and more different wine-making techniques being used. Like every industry in the world there is a whole network of unseen roles and responsibilities, often unglamorous and overlooked, that make it tick. Buying, selling, serving, educating, making, presenting, marketing and everything in between. When I wrote my 3,000 word essay on the bulk transportation of wine for my WSET Diploma, an entire sector of the wine industry became known to me that I had never considered before; the logistics of transporting and bottling wine without compromising quality. The scope is enormous and that leads me to my question; if it’s entirely obvious that the world of wine can’t be fully understood and mastered, what then is wine expertise all about?

The most popular expression of wine expertise in modern wine culture is, without a doubt, the sommelier; an old fashioned French word meaning “wine steward’. Thanks to the glorification of chefs and the restaurant industry, this previously uncelebrated role has now risen to fame and created a whole new culture of wine appreciation, mostly in major cities throughout the world. The key role of a sommelier is to understand, and potentially build, a wine list that offers good value, interesting wines that pair well with the cuisine of the restaurant and turns a decent profit for the owner. The practical job is then to take care of your customers, make sure they can choose a wine that suits the food they’ve ordered and is within budget, whilst adding to the overall dining experience. The word ‘sommelier’ has now become almost synonymous with most young wine professionals, much to the chagrin of experienced sommeliers working in restaurants, and has done much to create excitement around the industry as a whole. On the off-chance you haven’t seen the documentary SOMM, make sure you take an hour to watch it as it was a turning point for the profession and for wine education programs, particularly in North America.

Having said that, it seems that most sommeliers seem keen to improve their knowledge, education and skillset with the intention of moving away from working the floor, with the most desirable jobs including the purchase of wines for restaurants, hotels and retail stores. This seems counter-intuitive to me, especially as most train through the CMS program that is specifically designed to teach you how to be a good floor sommelier, but clearly shows that being a sommelier is considered a stepping stone to greater things. Wine buying is a position of great responsibility, as not only does it require an extensive wine knowledge but also a strong understanding of the realities of the trade. Wine buyers are treated like royalty for obvious reasons; they are the single most important link between wineries and their customers, especially in an increasingly consolidated market-place. Unfortunately, due to this smaller market there are understandably fewer wine buyers than ever before. The other reality of being a wine buyer is that wine is often diminished to a commodity; after all, the reality of your job is to turn a profit and sell what you think people will buy, not necessarily what you’d want them to.

Another highly visible position within the world of wine is working as a wine critic, either for an established magazine/institution or for yourself, if you manage to build a large enough following. This, however, is incredibly hard to define and ends up coming around seemingly by accident more than anything else. Think of the people who work as a wine critic and the same names tend to crop up; Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker, Oz Clarke… the list is relatively short. The problem is, with very few exceptions they tend to work in a variety of different fields. Jancis Robinson is better known for her wine-writing, particularly her work on the essential Oxford Companion to Wine and The World Atlas of Wine. Oz Clarke is as much a wine personality as a critic, appearing at various conferences and even television programs around the world, and Robert Parker is very much on his way out, having handed over the majority of his responsibilities to his underlings. Newer critics coming into the field tend to be wine-writers of some description, who happen to get the occasional gig on more established platforms. It’s commonly accepted that wine-writing is an over-saturated business and that most consumers are valuing applications such as Vivino and Cellartracker, where consumers leave their own scores and notes en masse, over the opinions of individual critics, no matter how respected.

Ultimately, I suppose how wine expertise is defined and pursued is down to the individual more than anything else. I’m still at a stage where there is so much of the world to learn, I can’t yet fathom the concept of mastering even a single part of it, let alone the whole thing. The further you research a topic, the more you realise how little you know, and it seemingly never ends. It’s a wonderful, maddening and absolutely delightful feeling all at the same time. So far I am mainly concentrating on perfecting the private tastings I organise, as well as honing my skills as a tour guide for Devour Barcelona and their excellent wine and tapas tour. However, I most certainly intend to start working in wine education as a WSET educator within a year, and I would definitely like to start judging wine competitions more regularly as well. I’ve been clear in my ambitions to become a Master of Wine but where the industry will take me commercially is still something of an unknown quantity to me. All I know is that I’m deeply enjoying all the different experiences I’ve been exposed to so far, and long may it continue!

So, my question to you is; how do you define wine expertise? What’s your ambition in learning the world of wine, the subtle nuances and great wonders of it all? You might find it as tricky to answer as I have, but it’s a question worth thinking about!

Thoughts On: The WSET Diploma Unit 3 exam

So, I have a single exam left ahead of me in order to successfully complete the WSET Diploma, and it’s the big one; Unit 3 – ‘Light Wines of the World’. As the WSET Diploma is broken down into 6 units, what ‘Light Wines of the World’ basically means is everything that wasn’t included in the previous 5. So no sparkling wines, no spirits and no fortified wines. The information learnt in both ‘The Global Business of Wine’ and ‘Production Methods’ will need to be called upon to answer questions in more depth, but essentially this is about white, red, rose and unfortified sweet wines from every major wine producing region in the world.

The major obstacle is the sheer size and scope of the exam. It’s split into two parts, one to be completed in the morning and one to be completed in the afternoon of the 7th January, a little over 6 months from now. This single exam is worth 50% of the marks for the entire of the WSET Diploma and the minimum recommended study time is 300 hours. My experience with the other, considerably smaller units was that the minimum time really was that; the bare minimum, so aiming to exceed that is strongly recommended. The exam itself is split thus:

Part I – A blind tasting of 12 wines to be completed in 2 hours, with full tasting notes as per the WSET lexicon and additional conclusions to be made depending on the flight. This is trickier than it looks but, famous last words, I’m not overly concerned about it. I practice blind tasting on a weekly basis and having written somewhere in the region of 1,500 WSET tasting notes, I’m pretty familiar with writing them in the time frame required. As a result I’ll continue to practice tasting in exam conditions, but the vast majority of my time will be spent on learning the theory part of the unit.

Part II – 5 essay and/or short answer questions to be completed in 3 hours, with one of the questions being mandatory and the other 4 chosen from a group of 5 (Only one can be avoided). This is where 95% of my time is going to be spent, as the amount of information required is enormous and having never done higher education, my essay and exam techniques leave an awful lot to be desired.

So, with the split clear and obvious, the only remaining task is to choose how to best spend 6 months of studying whilst balancing a small business, extra work on the side, a newly born child and hopefully some semblance of a social life. Whilst I will no doubt turn into over-drive come December and double the amount of time spent studying, the size of the task means that consistent studying has to be undertaken now to avoid failure. With that in mind, here is my plan:

June (Or what’s left of it)2 hours per day to be spent reading through the 170 page study guide and re-reading David Bird’s “Understanding Wine Technology”. According to the examiners report, a lot of students completely forget to revisit the basics of viticulture and vinification, and lose obvious marks when asked a question that requires an explanation of something integral to the region; ie. The impact of planting densities in Burgundy, trellising systems in New Zealand, reverse-osmosis in poor vintages in Bordeaux and so on. 10X2 = 20 hours

July and August – 2.5 hours a day. This is the time when I need to really gather information and resources together, slowly start reading through it and highlight key points. Every section of the study guide has the Oxford Companion to Wine references to study, and that either means lugging around the encylopedic tome with me everywhere, or using my membership to JancisRobinson.com to prepare a study guide and print it out. The latter it is. This is going to be a huge but essential task. 62X 2.5 = 155 hours This may seem like quite a lot during the summer, but July and August in Barcelona are so unbearably hot sitting inside studying with a huge fan blowing directly into my face is actually quite an attractive option!

September and October – 2 hours a day. Study time in it’s simplest form; read, re-read and read the material again. The plan here is also to start looking at some of the more recent trends and developments in the individual wine regions, as well as classifying key producers. 61 X 2 = 122 hours

November – 2.5 hours a day. Similar to the previous block, with the exception that now I also have to check statistics. For each country, it’s important to know the Sales in both volume and value, a basic over-view of trends and have an idea of their major export markets. The reason I’m leaving this until November is if I start with it, I’ll lose the will to live by the end of July. By November, that ship’s already sailed anyway. 30X 2.5 = 75 hours

December – 3 hours a day. 3 hours a day over Christmas sounds quite awful and this is why the pass rate for the January exams is so low. Revision, exam questions and more revision. 25X 3 = 75 hours (I know I’m clearly not going to be able to study every day here, so no point including them all)

January – Panic stricken revision – literally anything that can be done in the days before the exam.

So, that’s about the extent of it. 450 hours in total planned and if you reduce 10% of that as a sort of reality check, I’ll have to work hard to get to 400 hours done over the next 6 months. Now that I write it down, it looks quite depressing but also manageable. In the past, I’ve managed the workload by studying as much of it as possible first thing in the morning and that’s what I’ll do again. Needless to say, if you don’t see much of me over the coming months, you’ll know why!

Incidentally, I’m very much looking forward to an exam-free 2018 after January. I’m a big proponent of wine education and I owe a lot of my understanding of wine to the WSET courses I’ve taken. However, I think a full year of slowly absorbing information without any exam pressure will be lovely, useful and well deserved! It’ll also give me a lot more time to focus on other projects as well as more time with my new family. However, there’s a good 400 hours between now and then so let’s get started!

Blind Wine Tasting: Practical studying part III

Every week I head over to Monvinic, Barcelona’s largest international wine bar, to practice blind tasting. Typically this involves a flight of 6 wines, split equally between white and reds from all across the world. I’ve long been a believer that blind tasting is an incredibly useful study tool, and I’ve decided to track my sessions here in all their misery (mostly) and glory (very rarely!). As a result you may seem some confusing measurement terms as I am currently using the WSET Lexicon as a frame-work for my tasting notes partially trimmed down here for the purposes of brevity.

I ended up skipping a week and opting for a lunch last week due to a severe case of needing a small break from studying in general. However, this week I was full of energy again and ready for round 3!

White Wines

Wine #1: The wine has a pale lemon colour. On the nose there is a pronounced aromas of ripe green apples, green pears, lemon, grapefruit, peach and a touch of apricot. There are some gentle, floral aromatics along with some sweet herbs; tarragon and thyme.

On the palate the wine is dry with high acidity (a little creamy), medium alcohol, medium body, a medium + intensity and a medium + finish. A fresh, aromatic style of wine with some weight on the palate despite the clearly young, vibrant style. Very refreshing and altogether a very well made wine.

Guess: Albariño from Rias Baixas in Spain from the 2015 vintage

Reality: Alvarinho (same grape) from Vinho Verde in Portugal from the 2015 vintage

Wine: Quinta do Soalheiro Primeras Vinhas 2015

Located in Melgaço, Vinho Verde’s warmest, driest sub-region, production at Soalheiro is focused on Alvarinho, known as Albarino in neighbouring Galicia, Spain. It is Vinho Verde’s star variety and Soalheiro are one of its finest exponents. Antonio Cerdeira illegally planted 4 ha of Alvarinho in 1974 and, following changes in the law, released his first Alvarinho in 1982. Today his daughter, Maria tends the estate’s 10 ha of organically certified vines, while her brother Luis makes the wines.

Conclusions/Learning points: Bam, nailed it. After having confused Albarino with Sauvignon Blanc only two weeks ago, this was a much needed victory with regards to this grape variety. Even better than that, I took a little time sorting through the evidence and coming to some logical conclusions; high acidity but with some creaminess, medium alcohol and quite a bit of florality, sweet herbs – all pointed me in the right direction. Very good start and a delicious wine; I wish I could buy more of it!

Wine #2: This wine has a medium gold colour. The intensity on the nose is pronounced and clearly oxidative in style. Ripe apricots, peach, nectarine, lemon curd and oxidised golden apple are present, along with the toasted almond, rich nuttiness of carefully oxidised wines. Plenty of oak as well with lots of toast, smoke and vanilla.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, medium alcohol, a medium + body, a pronounced intensity and a medium+ finish, ‘Lemon curd on toast’ was my summary of the wine, although more specifically it was a gorgeous assemblage of really ripe, oxidised fruit, old oak and nuts. With the moderate alcohol levels and still elevated levels of acidity, I could only think of one wine this could reasonably be…

Guess: Viura blend from Rioja in Spain from the 2003 vintage

Reality: Viura blend from Rioja in Spain from the 2003 vintage

Wine: Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Blanco Reserva 2003

Lopez de Heredia are one of the truly classic bodegas of Rioja, having been founded way back in 1877. They now own over 170 hectares of land around the region, with Vina Tondonia making the majority of this with a little over 100 hectares of land. In a region that often changes to suit fashions, Lopez de Heredia have stayed stalwartly traditional, with long, slow elevage in American oak and delayed releases; their most recent Gran Reserva white wine is 1996, to give an example!

Conclusions/Learning points: I can’t remember the last time I got off to such a good start in a blind tasting, although it is worth pointing out that this is a very specific wine, and I knew it from memory as much as anything else. I did briefly consider the idea of white Cotes-du-Rhone/Montsant/Priorat/Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but the alcohol levels weren’t right and the wine seemed too evolved. Still, very happy to be doing so well right off the bat.

Wine #3: The wine has a medium lemon colour. On the nose there is a medium+ intensity of aromas, with some clear and obvious reduction (screw-cap? New World?). The aromas are pleasant, with ripe lemon, lemon zest, green apple, apricot, nectarine and a touch of green pineapple. There is some oak usage here as toast and vanilla are both detected, as well some some yeasty, pastry dough aromas suggested battonage, or at least extended lees ageing.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, medium+ alcohol, medium+ body, a medium+ intensity and a medium finish. Nothing in particular stands out, hence all the ‘mediums’, but this is a nicely balanced wine with good fruit, nicely integrated oak and a the only downside being a slight reduction.

Guess: Chardonnay from Gisbourne in New Zealand from the 2010 vintage

Reality: Chardonnay from Tasmania in Australia from the 2010 vintage

Wine: Stefano Lubiana Estate Chardonnay 2010

Steve Lubiana is a fifth generation wine-maker from Italy who arrived to Tasmania, Australia, back in 1990. Along with his wife, Monique, they now produce a portfolio of pure, crisp wines from cool climate, biodynamic vineyards in the Derwent Valley. The wine-making focuses on the nature of the grape and the fruit first and foremost, and this Chardonnay is joined by an excellent Riesling and a Pinot Noir that I have yet to try. Sparkling wine is also produced broadly in Tasmania and the Lubiana Estate makes this as well.

Conclusions/Learning points: So, grape and vintage completely correct and I also correctly identified that we’re in the New World, so that’s very positive. I called New Zealand as I thought the alcohol was slightly higher than it actually was, and that the fruit profile was perhaps a little more tropical. According to my note, my guess was in the right place so I suppose I must have mistaken some bottle development for fruit ripeness, which took me in the wrong direction. A shame, but encouraging nonetheless!

Red Wines

Wine #4: The wine has a pale ruby colour. On the nose there is a medium+ intensity of ripe cherries, strawberries and red currants. There’s also a lot of savoury, earthy characteristics here suggesting bottle age and development, with some barnyard, undergrowth and gravelly/earthy aromas. There’re some hints of old oak as well, with a lightly toasted, smoky aroma.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, medium ripe, firm tannins, medium+ alcohol, a medium body, a medium+ intensity and a medium finish. A nicely balanced wine with some fruit still singing nicely, with a good level of development; my favourite time to catch wines in their life cycles. Not a heavy wine in terms of tannins, or alcohol and clearly made in a cooler environment, although with no hint of under-ripeness.

Guess: Pinot Noir from Burgundy in France (Village level – Volnay?) from the 2010 vintage

Reality: Pinot Noir from the Ahr in Germany from the 2010 vintage

Wine: Meyer-Nakel Blauschiefer 2010

Meyer-Nakel enjoys the reputation of being one of the finest producers of Pinot Noir in Germany. Based in the Ahr Valley, a diminutive region of barely 550 hectares in the north of the country, they produce a selection of red wines including this lovely balanced wine, produced from vineyards grown on blue slate. The best wines in the portfolio are the single vineyard expressions with longer oak regimes and a lengthy drinking window, as with all top Pinot Noir based wines.

Conclusions/Learning Points: Same issue as my last tasting; what is the difference between Pinot Noir produced in Germany and Pinot Noir produced in Burgundy?! Clearly I need to attend some sort of master class where this is compared. Again, very encouraging that both the varietal and the vintage were correct. Fortunately, Monvinic have a wonderful selection of older, German Pinot Noir as well as some affordable, younger bottlings so I will have the chance to try a good few more yet.

Wine #5: This wine has a clear, deep ruby colour. On the nose there is a pronounced intensity of ripe and jammy black fruits; blackcurrant, cassis and cherry. There’s a strong herbal sensation, with lots of mint, eucalyptus and even a touch of green bell pepper. New oak seems present with pronounced vanilla, nutmeg and clove influences, along with some toasted, smoky notes.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, full ripe, soft tannins, high alcohol, a full body, pronounced intensity but unfortunately only a medium finish. A rich, ripe and powerful style of wine that screams ‘Australia’. Very modern in style but also fresh and really quite delicious, although a single glass would be sufficient!

Guess: Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra in Australia from the 2010 vintage

Reality: Shiraz from Coonawarra in Australia from the 2010 vintage

Wine: Katnook Estate Shiraz 2010

As part of the Wingara Wine group, this winery was purchased by Freixenet in 2001. It continues to be directed, however, by Wayne Stehbens, who has made the wine in a 19th-century stone woolshed (used in the region’s early vintages) for the past 20-odd years. Much of the grape production has been sold to others but Katnook’s reds have been characterised by their intense, concentrated, ripe (often very ripe), sweet fruit and tight structures when young. The stars of the production are Cabernet Sauvignon based, but the Shiraz and Shiraz Prodigy wines are also very popular.

Conclusions/Learning points: Damn, that was close to a very good call! With the rich dark fruits, herbal notes and what I thought were clear Cabernet Sauvignon descriptors, I was disappointed not to get this one, despite getting the region, country and vintage correct. What’s the difference between incredibly ripe Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz? I need to look this up as I was expecting a little more black pepper and spice from Shiraz. A friend told me that she always gets a spectrum of blue fruit in over-ripe Shiraz/Syrah; I will have a closer look the next time and see if that helps at all. Still, a solid call and would have scored me a lot of points in an exam.

Wine #6: This wine has a pale ruby colour. There is a medium intensity of fresh red fruit; redcurrant, cranberry and raspberry. The wine isn’t overly aromatic or complex and there’s a hint of earth, toast and smoke but little else.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity and medium+ firm, sticky tannins. The alcohol level is medium and the body is medium. As with the nose, the flavours are quite simple, fresh and pleasant but lacking excitement. There’s a little grip to the tannins but really nothing much to point me in the right direction. It could be Gamay, tannic Pinot Noir, Mencia, cool-climate Garnacha….

Guess: Mencia from Ribeira Sacra in Spain from the 2015 vintage

Reality: Sumoll/Tempranillo blend from Catalunya in Spain from the 2015 vintage

Wine: Gran Autocton Negre 2015

Autocton Gran Celler is a brand new project from Albert Jané of Acustic Celler in Montsant and Priorat. The grapes are grown from both the Penedes and Tarragona but vinified in the old, family winery in Mas Vilella in the Penedes. The focus is very much on indigenous varieties, hence the name of Autocton, and the appellation is DO Catalunya. The wines have only been very recently released into the market from the 2015 vintage.

Conclusions/Learning points: Hrm. There’s a part of me that was a little irritated to be presented with a Sumoll/Tempranillo blend, but in a way it was nice to have a curveball at the end of a very successful tasting in total. I can’t think of a single characteristic that defines Sumoll comparatively to other varieties, so I’ll have to have a think about this one. Not a bad wine in all but at the asking price in Spain, there are quite a few others I would head towards first.

One of my best ever tastings; to nail 3 wines and get so many details correct about the others is a huge improvement for me. This time around I took a little extra time to clear my mind and really dig into the wine, which made a big difference, as I sometimes have a tendency to rush. I learnt a lot and also discovered a few more weaknesses to work on in my tasting, but I went home with a big smile on my face and I’m already looking forward to next week to see if I can repeat it with any level of consistency!

Blind Wine Tasting: Practical studying part II

Every week I head over to Monvinic, Barcelona’s largest international wine bar, to practice blind tasting. Typically this involves a flight of 6 wines, split equally between white and reds from all across the world. I’ve long been a believer that blind tasting is an incredibly useful study tool, and I’ve decided to track my sessions here in all their misery (mostly) and glory (very rarely!). As a result you may seem some confusing measurement terms as I am currently using the WSET Lexicon as a frame-work for my tasting notes partially trimmed down here for the purposes of brevity.

Back to Monvinic for round 2!

White Wines

Wine #1: The wine has a pale lemon colour. On the nose there is a pronounced aromas of ripe peach, green apples, green pears, white flowers and a touch of honey. There’s a hint of brioche indicating potential lees usage and lots of ripe citrus fruit.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, medium alcohol and a medium body. There is a medium+ intensity of candied lemon, lime, green apple, green pear and apricot. There’s the same florality as the nose as the finish is medium+ and wonderfully dry. A really delicious wine with a nice mixture of different flavour components, some textural quality to the palate and lots of refreshing acidity. Great stuff!

Guess: Albariño from Rias Baixas in Spain from the 2015 vintage

Reality: Sauvignon Blanc from Martinborough in New Zealand from the 2015 vintage

Wine: Alana Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2015

Alana Estate is a small project located in Martinborough, on the south end of the northern island in New Zealand. Founded in 1993, Alana has since been acquired by Mike Cornish and operates under the ‘Waipara Vintners’ company. Since 2011, the estate has focused heavily on sustainable viticulture and employed Alex Craighead, a minimal intervention friendly wine-maker to take Alana in a new direction. They currently produce a variety of wines, all from plots of older vines, with a focus on Pinot Noir.

Conclusions/Learning points: Swing and a miss. Martinborough is mostly known for its powerful, spicy expressions of Pinot Noir but Sauvignon Blanc is a close 2nd in terms of plantings. This is my first taste of a Sauvignon Blanc from this part of the country but due to the wine-making philosophy of their new wine-maker, I can’t be sure if this would be a ‘typical’ style of Sauvignon Blanc from the region. One of my biggest issues in blind tasting is trying to stop myself from making my mind up when presented with obvious evidence, so it’s also possible I smelt floral aromas and ripe stone fruit and my mind went straight to Albariño. I did try the wine immediately thereafter and it wasn’t what I would associate with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but then the vast majority that I’ve tried comes from Marlborough, which has a very distinctive style. I suppose I’ll have to track down a few more and see!

Wine #2: This wine has a medium lemon colour. There is a medium+ intensity of ripe golden apples, peach, bruised green apple and pear. There’s some oak here with light toast and smoke notes, as well as a slight oxidative aroma of roasted almonds and some hay.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium acidity, medium alcohol and a medium+ body. There is a medium intensity of green apple, green pear and some riper, golden apple. Definitely some oak here with more smoke, a slight bitterness and even a touch of tannic grip. The finish is medium+ and a little savoury.

Guess: Viura from Rioja in Spain from the 2012 vintage

Reality: Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre in France from the 2012 vintage

Wine: Vacheron Sancerre 2012

Domaine Vacheron are one of the most recognisable names within the Loire Valley of France, with over 47 hectares under vine, the majority of which are Sauvignon Blanc. The estate is now certified as a biodynamic producer and produces many single vineyard expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, as well as a new focus on improving the quality of their Pinot Noir.

Conclusions/Learning points: Well, that answers my earlier questions about the New Zealand wine; I apparently suck at blind tasting Sauvignon Blanc. That makes the learning point very easy at least; drink a lot more of it! This isn’t the first time I’ve completely missed a Sancerre and the reality is that I need to spend a bit more time learning what these wines are all about. I also clearly mis-read the acidity.

Wine #3: The wine has a medium lemon colour. On the nose there is a medium+ intensity of ripe melon, golden apples, peach and pear. There is clear oak usage here in a slightly clumsy fashion; a little too much smoke and cloves for the fruit characteristics of the wine to really come through. Oxidative notes of hay, mushrooms and almonds. A little unbalanced and not very fresh.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium acidity, medium+ alcohol and a medium+ body. There is a medium intensity of ripe lemon, golden apple and again, too much oak influence. Smoky, a little rubbery and lacks freshness.

Guess: Xarel.lo from Penedes in Spain from the 2012 vintage

Reality: Xarel.lo from Penedes in Spain from the 2014 vintage

Wine: Gramona Ovum 2014

Gramona are a well established producer of high quality Cava and still wines, having been founded in 1921 in the Penedes region of Spain. They focus mainly on indigenous varieties for their Cavas to great effect, with III Lustros and Cal Battle in particular being exceptional wines. They also produce a line of still wines, often focusing outside on international varieties grown at slightly high altitudes, including Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.

Conclusions/Learning points: I always inwardly wince when I correctly identify a Spanish wine based on some of the obvious faults and flaws associated with some of our wine-making here. Despite the excellent quality of Xarel.lo wines around Catalunya, the overly oaky, oxidative aromas are still present and unfortunately are linked to Xarel.lo more often than not, due to its tendency to oxidise easily. Gramona are a very good producer but this wasn’t a good wine, and I thought it was older than it actually was due to the lack of life and freshness. Still, considering how wrong I got the first two whites I suppose I should be happy to get it right!

Red Wines

Wine #4: The wine has a pale ruby colour. On the nose there is a pronounced intensity of ripe cherries, blackberries, plums and damsons. There’s some oak usage here, but subtly done, with light hints of vanilla and smoke and just a touch of undergrowth/stalkiness. Really quite bright and aromatic, with subtle oak and herbal notes; lovely!

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, medium+ ripe and firm tannins, medium+ alcohol and a medium body. There is a medium+ intensity of ripe red and black fruits, oak and the same herbal influences as detected on the palate. The finish is medium+ and full of the same juicy fruit and a lovely, dry mineral sensation. A well balanced, delicious wine.

Guess: Garnacha from Sierra Grados in Spain from the 2013 vintage

Reality: Mencia from Bierzo in Spain from the 2014 vintage

Wine: Raul Perez El Rapolao Lomas de Valtuille 2013

Raul Perez is one of Spains most famous wine-makers consulting on projects all around Galicia in the north-west of the country. However, his own winery and family home is located in the village of Valtuille de Abajo in Bierzo, where many of his finest wines are made. Raul Perez is a big part of the movement towards expressing the terroir of Spain from single vineyards and smaller zones, and I expect his success to continue along with the excellent quality of his wines.

Conclusions/Learning Points: I love this wine! Funnily enough, I had written a tasting note for it around 5 months ago and a comparison of my blind note is almost identical to my non-blind note, which is very reassuring from a tasting point of view. So, the error comes then from how I deducted from the note, but where did it come from? Probably the fruit profile; Garnacha is typically more red fruit oriented than black, and the ripe tannins rather than the austere, dry nature of wines from Sierra Grados. Not too disappointed, though, as I was very much in the ball-park and the tasting note was accurate.

Wine #5: This wine has a pale ruby colour. On the nose there is a pronounced intensity of ripe and slightly dried red fruit; strawberry and cherry stand out here. There’s some developing barnyard aromas, leather and undergrowth/forest floor. Just a hint of light oak usage with a touch of smoke, but nothing obvious.

On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, medium ripe tannins, medium alcohol and a medium body. There’s a medium+ intensity of the same flavours as described on the nose, with a medium finish. The balance of flavours and structure is excellent here and again, exactly the sort of wine I love to drink. Lightly evolved but with lots of primary fruit left.

Guess: Pinot Noir from Burgundy (Village level) in France from the 2011 vintage

Reality: Pinot Noir from Baden in Germany from the 2011 vintage

Wine: Ziereisen Baden Schulen Blauer Spatburgunder 2011

Weingut Ziereisen are a small project from Baden in Germany, focusing almost exclusively on their expressions of Pinot Noir, although there is a small quantity of Pinot Gris and Syrah also grown. They tend 11 hectares of vineyards and produce 4 different expressions of Pinot Noir, divided between vine age and vineyard site.

Conclusions/Learning points: I’ll happily take this, having gotten both the grape variety and vintage correct. Trying to determine the difference between the same grape grown from a similar climate is notoriously difficult unless there clear wine-making differences between the regions, which in this case there isn’t. I messaged Neel Burton, the author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, to get his take on it. The response was “Honestly, it’s very difficult!”. So, happy to get the grape and the vintage right again, and I’ll try to pin-point minute differences at future non-blind comparative tastings.

Wine #6: This wine has a medium ruby colour. On the nose there is a pronounced intensity of ripe black fruit; plums, cherries and blackberry. There is a strong note of cracked, black pepper, smoked meat and dried herbs. There’s something dark and bloody about this wine; a tell-tale sign of Brett, I believe.

On the palate the wine is dry with high acidity and medium+ firm, sticky tannins. The alcohol level is medium+ and the body is close to being full. The flavours match the palate wonderfully with lots of ripe black fruit, pepper and smoked meat leading into a long, savoury finish. All three red wines I’ve been served today are of an excellent quality and I really enjoyed tasting them!

Guess: Syrah from Croze-Hermitage in France from the 2014 vintage

Reality: Syrah from Croze-Hermitage in France from the 2014 vintage

Wine: Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage 2014

Alain Graillot is a locally born wine-maker, who has become a benchmark of style of quality in Croze-Hermitage over the last 30 years. Low yields, old oak and sustainable viticulture are the hall-marks of Graillots style and now joined by his son, Maxime, the future looks bright for the domain. Whilst other producers are now ramping up their efforts in Croze-Hermitage, both the red and the white wines from this estate remain in demand.

Conclusions/Learning points: The only thing better than nailing a wine is nailing a wine at the end of a tasting! This just screamed cool-climate Syrah from the get-go, so the question was simply placing the region and the vintage. It didn’t have the meat of Hermitage, nor the juiciness of St Joseph and so Croze-Hermitage was realistically the only place it was likely to be produced in.

Really happy with this tasting. One learning point remains the same and that is the constant battle to not try and ‘guess ahead’ of the tasting note itself, but to try and remain neutral until all the evidence has been gathered… easier said than done. That and I need to drink more Sauvignon Blanc. A LOT more Sauvignon Blanc!

Thoughts on: The WSET Diploma

wset

If you follow me on social media, you’ll see that every now and again I spend some time in London tasting wine, sitting exams and taking advantage of the broad selection of available, most of which we certainly can’t find in Barcelona. One day I’d like to be able to nip across to London every now and again without worrying about the cost of it, although the weak pound made the last trip surprisingly bearable, but the reason I’m spending a lot of time in London is due to the WSET Diploma; a course I’m studying through at the WSET HQ in Bermondsey.

The WSET is the ‘Wine and Spirit Education Trust’, created in 1969 as a charitable organisation to cater for the educational needs of the UK wine industry. Today the WSET is the leader in wine education, with courses available in over 70 countries worldwide. The whole system is based on an easy to understand level system, running from 1-4 with optional side-courses such as Sake and Spirits as separate study options. I personally entered the system at level 3, bypassing 1 and 2 more for financial reasons than anything else, and I credit that course with globalising my perspective on wine, which up until that point had been very Spain-focused. A few months after passing the level 3, I decided to enroll for the level 4 program, the WSET’s flagship qualification and a necessary stepping stone for those seeking to become Masters of Wine.

Since beginning the course in February 2016, my education has been accelerated to a rapid pace due to the quality of the teaching and the pressure of the exams, which are certainly no walk in the park, and I’m now 50% through with only 3 exams to go in March and June next year. The WSET Diploma is designed to give an incredibly solid understanding and knowledge of every major aspect of the wine industry and I have to say, thus far it has met this lofty goal. Even for the smaller units, you have to learn every facet of that unit as you simply don’t know how the examiners will set the questions.

The major issue of the course is the cost of it; if you want to actually have any class time then the costs are currently £1800 pounds a semester (I saved about 350 euros by booking my second semester post-Brexit!), plus the cost of the flights to London, accomodation, food, travel and of course the books and wine that you need to expand your knowledge throughout the course; my overall costs will be close to €10,000 by the time I’m finished. It’s tough, it’s time-consuming and it’s expensive but ultimately is it worth it? For me, absolutely. I’m having a wonderful time and I can’t wait to get back to the school in January for another week of learning, always taught by Masters of Wine and industry experts. The WSET gets its fair share of criticism and I’ve had issues with the organisation itself (having to bring tasting glasses from Barcelona to London for classes is beyond absurd) but I can’t imagine I would have had my mind opened to the industry in the way it has been, were it not for my interaction with the course material, my teachers and the wonderful people I’ve met along the way.

wset-tasting-group-workshop

Below is the break-down of the course but if you’re living in Barcelona and want to get started with some WSET education, check out the lovely Sharon Levey at Wine Courses BCN.

The course itself is broken down into 6 distinct parts:

Unit 1 – The Global Business of Wine

What is it? All the nuts and bolts of the wine industry; why do wines from New Zealand always cost so much? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a family-ran business in the wine industry? Does the bulk transportation of wine risk the quality of the final product and what are the economic advantages?

Exams: 1x 2500-3000 word essay done in your own time, and 1x 75 minute case study done under exam conditions in an essay format.

Unit 2 – Viticulture and Vinfication:

What is it? The foundation of the entire wine industry; the biology of growing the grapes and the chemistry of turning them into wine. This has been my favourite unit thus far and digging into the details that deeply has given me a wonderful context for the industry as a whole. Which combination of root-stock types would you use for areas suffering from drought? What are the disadvantages of using bentonite as a fining agent? What are the side effects of potassium deficiencies in your soil?

Exams: 1x 90 minute exam with 100 multiple-choice questions. The easiest exam of the course by some distance.

Unit 3 – Light Wines of the World

What is it? ‘The Big One’ as it’s often referred to, is by far the most intimidating and difficult exam of the course which I will be taking next June. Essentially, every single wine that isn’t sparkling or fortified could come up here, with an indepth knowledge of every major wine region in the world required to pass. What steps can the South of Italy take to catch up to the more illustrious regions of the North? To what extent has Australia adopted itself to climate change and what is the future of this approach? Describe the 5 major grape varieties of Greece and their role in the wine industry, both local and exported. Tough stuff.

Exams: 1x 2 hour blind tasting of 12 wines.1x 2 hour exam with 4 essay questions to be answered on practically anything you can think of. Extensive knowledge of all other units needed here, which is why it is often the final exam.

Unit 4 – Spirits of the World

What is it? Exactly what it says on the tin; a comprehensive look at the world of spirits from both a production and industry point of view. Why have MaCallan changed their age-referenced labels in favour of Amber, Sienna and Ruby? What is the future for the Tequila industry? Explain the differences between the major styles of Rum from around the world.

Exams: 1x 30 minute blind tasting of 3 spirits and 1x 30 minute exam with 3 mini-essay questions.

Unit 5 – Sparkling Wines of the World

What is it? If it has bubbles inside it, it’s going to be contained in this unit! From Prosecco to Franciacorta, from Cava to Champange and from Moscato D’Asti to Lambrusco, and every stripe of New World sparkling wine as well. What are the major processes for producing sparkling wine and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each? Explain the domination of Prosecco on export markets. Disgorgement – explain.

Exams: 1x 30 minute blind tasting of 3 sparkling wines and 1x 30 minute exam with 3 mini-essay questions.

Unit 6 – Fortified Wines of the World

What is it? Port, Sherry, Madeira, Vin Doux Naturels, Rutherglen Muscat and practically anything from the south of Spain is included here. The exam has been slimmed down over the years as the market for fortified wine slows down globally, but it was still detailed enough to give us all a headache! Describe the major shippers in Madeira, describe the processes used for the different styles of Vin Doux Naturels, Pale Cream Sherry.

Exams: 1x 30 minute blind tasting of 3 fortified wines and 1x 30 minute exam with 3 mini-essay questions.

The above is the layout of the WSET Diploma, the most demanding and high level course available through this institution. Fear not, for not all courses are this rigorous so don’t be put off if you want to get started, you absolutely should! For more information on the WSET in general, this is their global site.

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